‘It’s hard to hate up close’: How a Portland man went from prison to the national spotlight

Every day, people with a substance use disorder are told “no.”

Landlords say “no” to renting them an apartment. Employers say “no” to giving them work. Some states say “no” to allowing them to vote.

For Christopher Poulos of Portland, the University of Maine School of Law nearly said “no” to admitting him to its program. Though he was substance-free at the time, Poulos’ addiction had led him to selling drugs, for which he served time in prison. When the law school dean suggested he pursue other careers, Poulos said he was crushed.

“I said, ‘Dean, why didn’t the judge give me a life sentence?’ He was surprised by my question; he said he wasn’t sure. I said, ‘OK, so why are you giving me one here today?’” he told an audience at a TEDx event last year. 

He didn’t blame the dean or others for their hesitation to welcome him — because that is what society taught them, he said. Ultimately, the admissions committee, of which the dean chaired, voted unanimously in his favor.

In addition to getting accepted to law school, Poulos worked as the legal fellow at the Sentencing Project in Washington D.C. last summer. He also joined efforts in Portland to help keep low-level drug offenders out of jail. And he’s drawn national interest. Last October, the Washington Post featured him in a story about people who braved stigma by giving up their anonymity.

As Poulos told The Post, “So long as we keep ourselves in the shadows, we will remain in the shadows.”

He had a similar message at the TEDx talk: “It’s hard to hate up close. I’ve found that by letting people get to know me simply as Chris before going into the details of my past, I’ve been able to form unlikely alliances.”

Below I’ve pulled out some of the quotes from his Tedx talk. I’m also including information about the Recovery Project, where we’re inviting community members to share their story of recovery or their hope for others experiencing addiction.

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